The opening pages of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven introduce you to a couple of mixed race living in Cabbagetown (Toronto) who are about to face an infectious disease epidemic. As someone who currently is in a mixed-race relationship living in Cabbagetown with an infectious disease doctor, the resonance in the novel for me began very, very early.
Very quickly, there is no more Cabbagetown, no more Toronto. The Georgia Flu, a pandemic like none I’ve ever read about before, rapidly wipes out the majority of humanity; those who remain are reduced to looting, rioting, and crime. A select few form settlements and begin life anew, a post-apocalyptic life that, in Station Eleven, feels much richer than the lives we normally see in tales after the apocalypse. The man from the mixed-race Cabbagetown couple marries a survivor and trains himself to be a physician in this new world, a world without painkillers or antibiotics. A human resources professional becomes a museum curator, a child actress joins a traveling symphony. Everyone sheds who they were before for a new, richer, more fulfilling identity—identities that are vastly different from the past but recall and retain bits of the world before the flu.
Because of this, it is unfair to call Station Eleven a post-apocalyptic novel: it is instead a novel about memory and loss, and about identity and reformation. It is about straddling the line between wanting to back to the way things were and understanding that nothing ever goes back, that change is constant, and that we are all regularly redrawing our selves in light of the changing world around us.
I am convinced that Bill Gates has been reading Station Eleven in his spare time. He recently gave an interview with Vox where he spoke about his fear of humanity’s “nightmare scenario”: an apocalyptic infectious flu epidemic. He’s concerned enough about the potential of this super-flu that he funded a disease-modelling group to explore what the repercussions of such a flu could be:
Behind Gates’s fear of pandemic disease is an algorithmic model of how disease moves through the modern world. He funded that model to help with his foundation’s work eradicating polio. But then he used it to look into how a disease that acted like the Spanish flu of 1918 would work in today’s world.
The results were shocking, even to Gates. “Within 60 days it’s basically in all urban centers around the entire globe,” he says. “That didn’t happen with the Spanish flu.”
The basic reason the disease could spread so fast is that human beings now move around so fast. Gates’s modelers found that about 50 times more people cross borders today than did so in 1918. And any new disease will cross those borders with them — and will do it before we necessarily even know there is a new disease. Remember what Ron Klain said: “If you look at the H1N1 flu in 2009, it had spread around the world before we even knew it existed.”
Gates’s model showed that a Spanish flu–like disease unleashed on the modern world would kill more than 33 million people in 250 days.
“We’ve created, in terms of spread, the most dangerous environment that we’ve ever had in the history of mankind,” Gates says.
This is part of the horror of Station Eleven’s apocalypse: it’s something we all should have seen coming. The Georgia Flu from the novel is a potent bug, and not some nefarious plot or horrific natural disaster. It feels real rather than fantastic, and because of that, it is frightening in its subtlety. There is no reason for Mrs. Mandel to tell us about its mechanics: we know and fear these kinds of scenarios already. The apocalypse, like both Mrs. Mandel and Bill Gates are telling us, could only be a sneeze away.
The accolades that Mrs. Mandel is receiving for this piece of fiction are very well deserved. Her prose is poetic, and the deftness with which she shifts time—the novel takes place years before the apocalypse, on the night the flu descends, and through twenty years after the world has “ended”—and space is remarkable. Through every movement through history and geography, the reader is never lost, and the story never wanders. The tale is imbued with mystery and intrigue—why does Arthur Leander, the actor who dies on stage in the first chapter of the book, linger throughout every page and paragraph?—as well as action and adventure. Mostly, however, Station Eleven is about nostalgia and hope.
The “undersea” people in the tales of Dr. Eleven (a comic book that acts as a prominent thread throughout the novel) are always clamouring that “We were not meant for this world. Let us go home.” Station Eleven is a book that reminds us that even though we feel out of place in this world, it is the only home we have.